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The Martha manifesto: An Ethiopian woman's dream

An image of Martha Mebrahtu

I have just finished reading ‘Terarochin Yanketekete Tiwild’ (The Generation that Shook the Mountains), a compilation of biographies of some of Ethiopia's revolutionaries of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – young minds that passionately fought against injustice, inequality and oppression, and eventually brought down King Haile Sellasie and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. Among those amazing, selfless martyrs mentioned in the book is Martha Mebrahtu whose tragic murder not only angered but also inspired thousands of young men and women who stood up and waged a bitter struggle for democracy and gave Ethiopia's oppressed the chance to finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

Martha was the daughter of a brigadier-general who hailed from the province of Eritrea (Eritrea was then part of Ethiopia). She was a beautiful and intelligent medical student at Haile Sellasie I University (now Addis Abeba University) back in the 1970s (or 1960s in the Ethiopian calendar). She entered college when she was only 15 years old. And a few months away from graduating, the government murdered her.

In addition to her academic excellence, Martha was an elected president of the university's medical students' association; one of the fiercest critics of the feudal system that exploited the poor (some years after she died, her father admitted that she always challenged and criticised him for being a part of an oppressive system); an advocate for women's rights (her peers affectionately called her the Angela Davis of Ethiopia); and an active member of the then fledgling university students movement, which gradually matured and became Emperor Haile Sellasie's worst nightmare.

Martha was born in Addis Ababa and as a young girl she had a chance to study in Nigeria and to visit the US as an exchange student. Her US exposure as a high school student, in particular, introduced her to the civil rights and feminist movements, the reasons of the movements and the individuals who spearheaded them, such as Angela Davis. Upon her return and later on joining the university, it was obvious that she would become a passionate advocate for social change.

With an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a plane on the 8 December 1972, Martha and her peers sacrificed their precious lives (the secret police on board gruesomely murdered nearly all of them, except one, just when they started ordering the pilot to change direction). But their sacrifice wasn't in vain; it paved the way for other activists; it awakened the consciousness of the mass, proving to the then emperor and the dictator who took power after him that one can kill a person, but never an idea whose time has come. It is important to mention here that the plan to hijack the plane was never meant to harm anyone on board, but to only make legitimate demands on the imperial government.

The night before the hijacking attempt (Thursday, 7 December 1972), Martha wrote her manifesto, the reasons that compelled her to make sacrifice on the next day. She put her thoughts in words, and laid down her dreams. Martha wrote (roughly translated from Amharic):

‘We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, have made our life ready to participate in a struggle and we would like to explain the nature of our struggle to our sisters and brothers all over the world.

‘Our struggle demands a bitter sacrifice in order to liberate our oppressed and exploited people from the yokes of feudalism and imperialism. In this struggle we have to be bold and merciless. Our enemies can only understand such a language.

‘We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, are not only exploited as members of the working classes and peasants, we are also victims of gender inequality, treated as second class citizens. Therefore, our participation in this struggle must double the efforts of other oppressed groups; we must fight harder, we must be at the forefront.MORE
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